As we anticipate the premiere of Circumstance (a Cinereach grantee) in New York and LA theaters this weekend, Cinereach asked one of the film’s producers, Karin Chien, to reflect on the struggle behind the now-apparent glory. Faced with a compelling and important story, but a hard sell from a commercial perspective, the resourceful and committed team behind the film charted a harrowing fundraising course — from pre-production to the final days before their Sundance premiere. We hope other independent producers will find the Circumstance team’s experience useful and inspirational. From our perspective, above all else, it is a testament to the dedication and bravery of the independent producers who bring vital stories into being. We’re proud we had a small part in the Circumstance story, and congratulate the team and its supporters, on reaching this exciting milestone at last.
Circumstance, a film about teenage rebellion and love in an oppressive Iranian society, could not have been made without nonprofit support. This is a subtitled film spoken in Farsi, performed by an unknown cast, shot in an undercover production in Beirut by first-time writer/director Maryam Keshavarz, with minimal distribution potential in the region where the story was set. Who was going to invest in this project? Even amongst indie films, it was a risky proposition.
The film was too provocative and too lesbian for Middle Eastern investors, too non-commercial for film investors. But while equity investors were turning us down left and right, something extraordinary happened – the film received over $300,000 in non-profit support – 14 grants and in-kind donations in all.
Circumstance is the fortunate beneficiary of a few extraordinary individuals and organizations who believe in meaningful filmmaking. Cinereach, not least amongst them, came along five years ago and took notice that indies with socially relevant themes were struggling to survive in a commercially driven marketplace. San Francisco Film Society revitalized itself under Graham Legatt and found several million dollars to give away to narrative films. Sundance Institute kept doing its thing and has attracted more grant money than ever. It’s the start of what I hope is a permanent trend.
Grants are a godsend for any indie film. Not only do they not need to be paid back, but they don’t dilute investor profit participation. With grant money, investors receive more profit participation than if the film were fully capitalized with equity, thus making it more attractive to equity investors. Grants also come with virtually never-ending support – amazingly, these organizations gave us money and they kept giving: referrals, introductions, publicity, and advice. No resource went unused.
This is a breakdown of our non-profit support, and a snapshot of how Circumstance got made:
1. Sundance Institute: Circumstance participated in the Sundance Screenwriter & Filmmaker Labs (note of caution: it’s harder to become a Lab Fellow than to get into the Festival.) Maryam met our cinematographer and composer at the Labs. And once you’re a Lab Fellow, you’re eligible for Sundance grant funding from sources like the $5,000 Adrienne Shelly Women Filmmakers grant Maryam received and the $15,000 Zygmunt and Audrey Wilf Foundation Award the film received. Sundance has done an incredible job of bringing in money and partners to ensure their Lab projects get made and seen. Sundance grants enabled us to cast around the world, scout in the Middle East (Middle East Filmmaker Grant), shoot on 16mm film (in-kind Kodak donation), continue editing when we ran out of money (Annenberg grant), and finish with a 35mm negative (in-kind eFilm lab donation). In addition to grants, Sundance gave us notes on our rough cuts, wrote letters to the Jordanian Royal Film Commission when we were scouting, and introduced us to vendors and crew. The value of their support cannot be overstated.
2. Cinereach: This relationship actually started unexpectedly. Cinereach turned down our first grant application. But like all persistent indie filmmakers, we tried again. The second time, we were funded, and at exactly the most crucial moment. Following the massive post-election protests in Iran in 2009, we decided to fast-track the production in Beirut. We were worried the situation would worsen in Iran, and that our window to shoot this film in the Middle East would disappear. Before the protests, we planned to bring art department crew from Iran. In the end, only the Iranian props that a Western journalist brought back from Tehran participated in the film; it was too risky for Iranian-based crew or actors. We wanted to do our part by telling a story about Iranian teens, thousands of whom were killed or disappeared in the protests. When Maryam and fellow producer Melissa Lee started pre-production in Lebanon, we hadn’t raised even half the budget. The $25,000 Cinereach grant came through right before I left for Beirut. It was not only much needed money, but an incredible validation of our decision. In a way, it told me that everything would be ok, though it was still hard as hell. During the final stretch, Cinereach contributed another $20,000 post-production grant, which paid for sound and music costs.
3. San Francisco Film Society (SFFS): We were in the midst of editing the film in LA when we received an email from Josh Welsh, Director of Artist Development at Film Independent (see below), that SFFS had created a film fund and the deadline for applications was the next day. We quickly pulled together an application that included 10 minutes of footage. Incredibly, SFFS granted us $50,000 based on that 10 minutes and our written application. They knew and they believed. We found out about the grant after having paused post-production due to lack of funding, and it gave us a huge push towards the finish line. SFFS told us that Circumstance is the first of their grantees to have finished and the first to have theatrical distribution, and we couldn’t be more proud.
4. Film Independent (FIND): Maryam participated in the FIND Producer’s Lab in LA, which was taught by producer Gina Kwon. Gina brought the project to me. Though my plate was full at the time, I never forgot Maryam’s script. It was one of the smartest and most engaging scripts I had read in a long time, and it spoke to my desire as a producer to work on films about women and about politically relevant stories. Six months later, when my schedule freed up, I made a call to Maryam to see if she still needed a producer. Melissa Lee had just joined the project, and I joined the team right around Obama’s election. I remember that great post-election sense of change and empowerment. In addition to connecting me and Maryam, FIND granted us an in-kind Kodak film stock donation. They also recently hosted a screening for their members to help generate word-of-mouth for the theatrical release. Josh Welsh continues to look out for us for any and all opportunities (see SFFS grant).
5. Women In Film: We received a $10,000 grant from WIF and Netflix that kicked in right when we were completing the post-production for Sundance. It couldn’t have come at a better time. WIF also featured us on a panel at the Sundance Film Festival and will be including the film in their “Fearless” screening series in LA.
6. Fonds Sud: Thanks to our tireless French co-producer Antonin Dedet we received two grants from France. The first was a $4,000 development grant from Antonin’s home province. The second was a sizeable $40,000 Fonds Sud grant to cover post-production expenses. We had originally applied for development and production grants from the Fonds Sud but we were turned down, so it was a huge relief to receive the post funding. The grant has a very restricted spend – only in France and only for certain post-production items – so we had to factor in travel to France, overseas shipping, and exchange rate increases. But the Fonds Sud grant allowed us to make the 35mm festival print, create laser subtitles on the print, and deliver an interpositive.
7. Hubert Bals Development Fund: A Dutch producer helped the film apply for a $12,000 development grant that was critical to allowing Maryam to hold auditions around the world. We found our principal cast in Canada, France, Sweden, and the US. Without this grant, our casting process would have been severely limited. We applied later for the Hubert Bals Plus fund, which funds production, but were turned down.
The financing of Circumstance often felt like The Amazing Race – Maryam, Melissa and I in last place, and the production budget in first place. We were constantly raising money to catch up to our spend. For the first time, I broke a major producing rule of mine – never go into production without all the money raised – but we knew we had to. With the massive social and political change about to rock the Middle East, this was the time to tell this story. Even two weeks before our Sundance premiere, we were still locking in another equity investor. It wasn’t until we sold the film to Participant Media 48 hours after that premiere that the producers finally pulled ahead of the budget, after 18 months of breakneck sprinting.
As you can tell from the partial list above, Circumstance was incredibly lucky. Organizations like Tribeca Film Institute and New York University also provided valuable resources and support. But we were also rejected by more organizations than I can remember. More than once we were turned away because of the US embargo with Iran (ironic since Iran would later denounce our film). But we tried every avenue because we felt this film had to be made. In the end, we raised little more than half of the budget in private equity, mostly from friends and family who believed in us, and the rest in grants, in-kind donations and deferrals.
At our Sundance premiere, after the standing ovation and before the Q&A, I read a long list thanking every organization that gave us funding. And, not surprisingly, someone from almost every organization that funded us was in the audience, cheering us on at the premiere. It felt incredible to finally say in public, thank you to the funders who believed in us from the beginning. Their belief was the greatest support of all.
Karin Chien is an independent film producer based in New York City, and the 2010 recipient of the Independent Spirit Producers Award. Karin has produced eight feature-length films, including Circumstance (2011), The Exploding Girl (2009), The Motel (2005), and Robot Stories (2002) which have won over 100 film festival awards, premiered at Sundance and Berlin, and received international distribution. Karin is in production on Untitled (Structures), an installation by Leslie Hewitt in collaboration with Bradford Young, and in post-production on P. Benoit’s Stones in the Sun about exile from Haiti, and Bradley Rust Gray’s Jack & Diane starring Juno Temple and Riley Keough. Karin is the president and founder of dGenerate Films, the leading distributor of independent Chinese cinema. Karin is also the director of the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) Fellowship and the curator of the Chinatown Film Project, an inaugural film exhibition for the Museum of Chinese in America.
Cinereach is now accepting applications for the Winter 2011 Grant Cycle!
Apply online by December 1st, 2010 to be considered for our support.
Visit the How to Apply page to learn about our online application center, priorities & guidelines, FAQ and more.
Cinereach supports feature-length nonfiction and fiction films that are at the intersection of engaging storytelling, visual artistry, and vital subject matter. Our grantees’ films often possess an independent spirit, depict underrepresented perspectives, and resonate across international boundaries. They favor story over message, character over agenda, and complexity over duality.
Grant amounts can range from $5,000 – $50,000 per project and can be awarded to support any stage of production including research and development, production and post-production.
In preparation for applying, we encourage you to peruse past Cinereach grant recipients, including the recently announced Summer 2010 grantees.
Cinereach Intern Laura Elliott Interviewed the 2010 Reach Film Fellows. She summarizes their responses below.
Cinereach is now accepting applications for the 2011 Reach Film Fellowship. Leading up to the July 12, 2010 deadline, I thought it would be useful for current applicants and prospective fellows to hear about what to expect from the outgoing fellows, while the experience is fresh in their minds.
I interviewed the 2010 fellows via email and am sharing some of their responses here with those who might follow in their footsteps. Please don’t forget to also thoroughly read the RFF how to apply, program guidelines and FAQ sections of the Cinereach web site for all the official details.
Question 1: What stage was your project at when you applied for RFF and what was your approach to filling out the application?
For any habitual procrastinators out there, here’s a glimmer of hope: Courtney and Nadia both found out about RFF just two days before the deadline and were able to submit successful applications! On the other hand, if you’re reading this before July 10th please don’t wait. All of the 2010 fellows had put plenty of thought into their films before applying – even those who didn’t know they would be candidates.
Nadia knew she wanted to make a film inspired by the late-night-radio show “Lockdown Love.” The show featured shout-outs from women callers giving emotional messages to their incarcerated husbands and boyfriends and Nadia wanted to find some of the women and tell their stories. The show’s DJ Cherry Martinez would be the key window into the film, but Nadia had not asked her to participate yet. Before applying, Nadia says, “I quickly contacted Cherry Martinez and asked her if she would be interested. She got back to me right away. I then worked on the application for two days with my producer, Jamie-James Medina.”
Anthony writes “this was my second year applying for the Reach Fellowship. The first year I applied, I submitted a documentary that was a work in progress. It did not really fit the criteria and was not accepted (Surprise! Read the program guidelines!).” The second time around, Anthony applied with a film that was in early pre-production, the ideal stage for RFF candidates. He had located two potential documentary subjects, administrators of a school in the Bronx that serves young children diagnosed with autism, but had yet to figure out which children would be featured.
Courtney writes “I had a draft of the script for Wild Birds, had planned a fundraising party for later that summer, and had attached key [crew], but wasn’t really sure how I would actually fund the film. Learning about the Cinereach Fellowship, even so close to the deadline, was sort of a miracle. My producer and I stayed up until four am to complete the application, mailing it in just in time. Fortunately, most of the questions were topics I had already discussed with my producer and/or DP, or condensed versions of what I had written for the film’s prospectus. But it was still a crazy two days!”
Gabriel wrote his script for The Drawing (which was titled “Brothers” at the time) during his senior year of college at Cornell. Most of the time he spent on the RFF application was applied toward re-writes and crafting answers that focused on the Cinereach misson. “The information session that was held [at DCTV] a few weeks before the deadline helped me figure out how I should approach the application, said Gabriel. “My main takeaway from the event was the phrase ‘vital stories artfully told,’ which was how the Cinereach staff described the projects they were looking for. I made sure that my script was telling a story from a unique perspective, and was thus vital (I hoped), and I also made sure to articulate why I wanted to tell the story, hoping that this would indicate my ability to tell it artfully.” Gabe also asked a friend to draw some storyboards and concept art to help make his application visual. DCTV will host an RFF info session again this year on June 14th.
Each successful RFF application demonstrated that the filmmaker had a compelling and artful film to make, and was able, and determined, to complete it.
Question 2: When you were invited to interview, as a finalist, how did you prepare and what did you try to emphasize?
“I figured that since I’d made it to the interview stage, the staff thought the subject of my story fit with Cinereach’s socially conscious mission,” Gabriel recalls. “That meant I needed to [concentrate on] selling the staff on my storytelling ability” during the interview.
Anthony shares that he “prepared by going over my original application and by revisiting a classroom at the school where my film would be shot to be around the kids. This visit was crucial because in the interview itself I could focus on [conveying] what I was drawn to about my subject: the infectious energy of the students and the classroom.” He adds that he also tried to think of Cinereach staff he met not as interrogators, but as potential collaborators and “I was open about my questions/uncertainties for the project. It’s alright not to have all the answers.”
Nadia tried to be as relaxed as possible for her interview and, not knowing what to expect, was pleased to find that the Cinereach staff made her feel comfortable. “I tried to emphasize that although I didn’t have conventional film school training, I had a good amount of hands-on experience that would help me in the making of my film.”
Courtney was a little less thrilled with how her interview went (though Cinereach staff felt she did just fine – and may be critiquing herself too harshly). “I’m pretty sure my interview was not so good…but I wore a dress!” Courtney recalls. “I remember that. And I remember hoping Reva [the fellowships manager] would let my terrible interview slide because we both have our noses pierced.” (Reva assures me that was not the reason Courtney was selected). But, Courtney continues, “I would say interviewees should have someone practice-interview them based on what they wrote for their application, or practice telling yourself in the mirror why you want to make your film and why you care about the underlying issues it addresses.” She goes on “sometimes it’s much harder to express how you feel about your project aloud, or remember where those ideas came from after spending so much time translating them into words on a page.”
Question 3: How did your past experiences prepare you for what was required of you during the Reach Film Fellowship?
Each of the 2010 fellows had prior hands-on experience directing short films, as well as having gained experience working on other directors’ sets. At the same time, each was very eager and open for more experience writing/directing/producing with professional guidance.
Although Courtney had made other short films as a student at New York University, and seen them screen at festivals, she still felt like her knowledge of filmmaking was somewhat theoretical. “Having experience putting a shoot together helps to avoid problems you’ve encountered before. I definitely learned a whole lot from the Fellowship, though. I think I knew theoretically how to do so many things but the Fellowship helped me put those concepts into action. That was true for everything from script rewrites to audience building.”
Also a graduate of NYU with student films under his belt (fiction and nonfiction), Anthony applied after having gone through “an extended period of working as a production assistant on T.V. shows.” Doing that, Anthony found that it was very difficult to gain up-close exposure to professional filmmakers working in the industry. He began to “crave collaboration” over what he calls “the walkie-talkie cog life of a part-time PA.” Cinereach treats the fellows as peers, he says. “I was blown away by the access we’re given to working filmmakers – advisors who donate their time and come in to meet with us.”
Nadia didn’t have an academic film background, but had more hands-on industry experience than most of the other fellows because she had worked her way up from a Production Assistant to Camera Assistant to her current role as a Director of Photography for some of the most prominent documentary filmmakers working today. This experience gave her the confidence and skill to not just direct, but also shoot her own film, and capture it in a manner that was aesthetically and technically on par with the well-crafted feature docs she DPs.
Gabriel began RFF after having gained most of his experience from his senior thesis film, a 25-minute film he made in New York, using a professional crew. The crew of this production was much larger than his crew for his RFF film, The Drawing, and there were many more locations. “Making my thesis film gave me a good sense of what crew and equipment I needed and what I could do without,” he says. Gabriel also made a conscious effort to treat the workshops and meetings during RFF like he would have treated college seminars. “In order to get the most out of them, I tried to always come prepared—whether that meant taking notes and having questions ready or simply having my ideas organized in my head.”
Question 4: What were your major takeaways from the fellowship?
For Nadia, the biggest takeaway from the process was the experience of finishing a film in a very condensed period of time (fellowship films must be completed between September and April in order to screen at RFF’s culminating screening event, Reach Out). It was a big challenge but also left her with a great sense of accomplishment. “There was no time to procrastinate. Just do. Deadlines are very important to get me motivated.”
Courtney recalls “having a group of people from different professional backgrounds [DPs, producers, editors, composers, other writer/directors] help me through the project was incredibly useful. I think in film school, this connection isn’t really made. If you write a script for a screenwriting class, it’s rare to then analyze the [same] script for scheduling and budgetary purposes.”
Anthony adds that this opportunity was a chance to “surround yourself with people who are more talented than you. My crew [for this project was very skilled] and they made this project their own. In many ways I felt my role of a director was to get out of the way and let my crew do their work.”
For Gabriel, the Reach Film Fellowship experience reaffirmed that there is no substitute for experience. “Our mentors and advisors were able to help me along and point me in the right direction only because they’ve built up lots of their own experience making films.”
Question 5: What are you doing now? And where do you go from here?
We’re excited to report that Anthony’s film, Bye, has been licensed for broadcast (more details on that as we have them). He adds “right now, I’m working on distributing Bye and applying to film festivals. The fellowship has also exposed me to resources for documentary filmmakers, workshops and labs and I’m hoping to participate in some [of those] in the future. More than anything, I want to continue working in documentaries, as a PA, driver, anything. Wait, PA’s on documentaries don’t need walkies, right?
Courtney is writing a feature version of her RFF film, Wild Birds, and applying for grants to develop the project further. She is hoping to produce it next year. “One thing I know for sure is that Cinereach has given me some really amazing tools that I’ll be able to use on any future film endeavor,” she says.
Gabriel just announced that The Drawing will screen at Newfest in New York this June. He hopes it will continue to open doors for him and is currently working on making another short film and writing a feature script. He plans to follow the strategy of Tze Chun, an RFF advisor, who committed to making a short film every six months and writing a feature-length script every nine months in lieu of going to graduate school. Because of a successful short, Tze was able to finance his first low budget feature.
Nadia continues working as a DP and plans to devote her summer to festival submissions for Love Lockdown. She says, “my hope for Love Lockdown is that many people get to see it, that’s the real reward in filmmaking, sharing with others.” She adds that her next directing project may not be too far off. “If you want to be a director you have to direct films, in whatever capacity, so I see this as another stepping stone to achieving that goal.”
Question 6: Do you have any general advice for 2011 applicants and accepted fellows?
“The most important thing is to have a clear sense of the story you want to tell when you apply. Even though the script may change, it is critical to know what is at the heart of your story and why this is important to you,” Gabriel offers. “For accepted fellows, there are so many opportunities and so much information available to you through RFF that it is probably impossible to take advantage of it all. The more prepared and organized you are, the more you will get out of it.”
Nadia recommends “be realistic about the type of film you want to make, and try to make it whether or not you get the grant. [If you are accepted] be prepared to do a lot of writing, production is only half the battle.” By writing, Nadia is referring to the content fellows are required to create during the fellowship to supplement the making of their films and assist Cinereach in showcasing the filmmakers (via Cinereach.org, the Reach Out screening event, and blog posts that chronicle what each fellow is learning from mentors and advisors).
Anthony encourages applicants to put as much effort as possible into the application process. “Fight for it, he says. This opportunity is priceless.” He urges accepted fellows not to “force the process.” Be honest with yourself and Cinereach about your uncertainties and what is really driving you to produce your film.”
Courtney’s advice is “just keep making movies. Just keep writing, shooting and watching as many films as possible. As I learned from a Cinereach workshop, ‘You can’t be a filmmaker if you don’t make films,’ so keep at it!”
Current Cinereach interns, Laura Elliott, Kristin Esposito and I joined an audience that included the fellows, their families, friends, crews, and casts, along with Cinereach grantees, fellowship alumni, and representatives from all areas of the New York independent film community.
In a packed theater at Sunshine Cinemas in the East Village, Cinereach’s Reva Goldberg and Philipp Engelhorn introduced the program, which commenced with a behind-the-scenes video. The video provided glimpses at the experience the fellows had working with their mentors, and tracked their progress through the intensive seven-month Reach Film Fellowship program. It gave the evening a warm, personal prelude (try to imagine it on the big screen):
All four short films were screened: Wild Birds by Courtney Hope, Bye by Anthony Morrison, The Drawing by Gabriel Long and Love Lockdown, by Nadia Hallgren. The films explored a diverse range of topics, from autism to incarceration, and each film was, in it’s own unique way, insightful and engaging. Following the final film, Anthony Morrison was presented with the Reach Out 2010 Award.
Audience reaction was extremely positive, and the films sparked a lively discussion among guests as they headed to Rayeula, a nearby restaurant, to toast the four fellows over tapas and sangria. For more photos from the evening, visit the Cinereach facebook page, and stay tuned for updates on where the four fellows go from here!